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Dublin: 7°C Wednesday 28 September 2022

Author: 'I knew those neo-Nazi classmates were living in a sort of oblivion of meaninglessness'

Conner Habib has now made Ireland his home. But here, he recalls his youth in Pennsylvania, and how it fed into the writing of his debut novel.

Conner Habib

ONCE, A TEACHER made fun of me for saying that it rains frogs sometimes.

In a class in high school, in Pennsylvania, I made a comment about that strange weather. She told me to prove it; a request not so easy to fulfill pre-internet. The next day I brought in a book that had a short essay on the rare event. She wouldn’t look at it, but ridiculed me and told me to return to my lab table and my cut-open frog, splayed and pinned to its dissecting pan.

My hands and clothes and everything smelled like formaldehyde. Of course, of course, in Pennsylvania, it didn’t matter if you were right, only if you were in control.

Later, another teacher — who years before had punched my brother in the side of the head and weeks before threatened to strangle me in front of the class — was talking about Nazis. Not the World War II ones, but kids in our area, down the street, in our school.

“You’ve got to listen to him,” my teacher said about one of my neo-Nazi classmates and his Nazi ideas, “he’s got some good points.”

‘Nowhere to go’

In my town, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We were land-locked, far from any cities except the post-industrial landscapes of shattered factory windows and fenced-off parking lots that made up Allentown and Bethlehem.

There were diners open all night and those were saving graces. Kids met and sat in booths, drinking coffee and eating breakfast food, talking about whether or not God was real and what post-punk bands from DC we liked.

We would joke about gruesome things. A favourite prank was concealing a packet of coffee creamer with your hand and rubbing your eye vigorously until the packet burst, the false white of your eye spilling across your fingers.

We skipped school and gathered under the bleachers at the football game and got drunk and high at parties. Some kids started shooting up and selling heroin, and in our final year, it seemed like all the golden favoured kids, good-looking bullies who got good grades and played sports, started doing coke.

I was lonely and didn’t want to do coke, so I set up punk rock shows and started a record label. There are probably easier ways to not be lonely, but I didn’t know them. The shows were loud, crowded, sweaty. They were dotted with Nazis, who showed up everywhere, and you’d be too afraid to kick them out. They were our classmates, after all. They’d pass you in the hall the next day.

So no escape in music, either. The meaninglessness that poisoned people and turned them into Nazis followed you into those spaces. So I’d write stories and read them to friends. A story about a man made out of glass, a story about a priest who killed his confessors, a person eaten by locusts. They were harsh and trying to get at the big picture, like conversations at the diner in the night.

‘A beating heart’

My novel Hawk Mountain owes its life to this striving, those conversations, but mostly my attempt to confront and contend with the meaninglessness of where I grew up, and of school; and to show that there was a beating heart there.

It’s a novel against the way that meaning and value in my hometown were decapitated or impaled before they could go anywhere.

Like when the first girl to come out as a lesbian was sent to the guidance counsellor because she must, according to the faculty, be troubled. Or when my teacher kicked me for asking too many questions about Harriet Tubman. Or how the bigotry, the evil, was allowed to infuse our everyday language with its presence more than any art or philosophy or spirit.

I knew that my neo-Nazi classmates were mostly just living in a sort of oblivion of meaninglessness. If there were more things to do, more encouragement to imagine… anything, there wouldn’t have been the same void for the nothingness of fascist racism to commiserate with.

Maybe, then, because they were being preyed upon by the real grown-up Nazis, they were safer than it seemed, maybe it was a game?

Or maybe not. Like when two neo-Nazi brothers at a nearby school with swastika tattoos murdered their family. Or when kids stabbed each other after school. Or when a neo-Nazi told me he was going to tell everyone at the next punk show that I was a towelhead and then push me into a crowd of skinheads.

“This is a book about monsters,” my teacher said when I showed her the essay on the rain of frogs. She pointed to the cover but didn’t open it. It was a book about monsters, edited by Vincent Price, but it wasn’t only about fictional ones: it was about oddities, discovered cryptids, murderers.

“Conner thinks monsters are real,” she laughed.

And she made sure everyone joined in.

Hawk Mountain by Conner Habib is published by Doubleday and is available in shops and online now.

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Conner Habib

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